Thursday, October 8, 2015

Her First Divine Liturgy: Very Colloquial

In the tenth century, emissaries of St. Vladimir wandered into the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople and were raptured into religious ecstasy at the sight of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy. Those pagans converted to Greek Christianity and even ensured its survival after the fall of Constantinople and its surrounding empire in 1453. The Prince's men recounted, "We knew not whether we were on earth or in heaven." So, readers, you can understand my interest in the reaction of a dear friend, nominally an Armenian Christian, to her first Divine Liturgy.

I took my friend to another Church of Holy Wisdom three Sundays ago for the usual obligation to sanctify the day of the Lord. Having grown up in one of Russia's puppet states, she speaks fluent Russian and understood the Divine Liturgy, even in its Ukrainian elements, perfectly. After the Liturgy, after lunch, and after some socializing, I asked her, "So, what did you think?" Her answer could not have had less to do with those of the Prince's pioneers. She replied, "It's very.... colloquial."

At some level she is right. The Byzantine rite is the most self-referential rite in the Church, the Pauline liturgy excluded. The Greek work leitourgia betrays that the ecclesiastical liturgy has a source origin in public works of service, the creation of monuments, and other things for popular benefit at the cost of the state. Constantinople's liturgy remained a work by the empire's Church for the benefit of the empire's people. The litanies and diaconal exclamations of the Greek liturgy were originally public prayers led by men in administrative roles while the priests performed duties germane to the Sacraments. It would only be natural that the assembled congregation have an element of self-reference. Indeed, these elements survived the monastic and hesychast makeover the Divine Liturgy received in the 11th-15th centuries.

This is not a fault of the Greek liturgy, just a fact. The city of Rome retained a spiritual identity longer after the political cohesion behind the Western empire evanesced. The Latin liturgy, not unlike the various far Eastern and north African rites, became applied on too wide a scale to be owned by any one culture or polity. Such was not the case of the Greek rite. Greek Christians held their state for twelve centuries. 

The Great Doxology in the third Greek tone, a personal favorite.

This supposed self-reference does draw attention to the mystical development of the Greek and Latin liturgies. My friend's only prior exposure to traditional rites of Christian worship are the old Latin Mass on a few occasions and the Armenian liturgy for weddings, funerals and Christmas. She said of the Divine Liturgy, "You just don't feel like your in the presence of God, watching Him as He is, like at the Latin Mass." My initial reaction to the Greek tradition could not have been more agnostic to her own. I walked into a Melkite parish during Orthros while the deacons and choir sang the Evlogitaria and became immediately aware of the Holy One's presence. This does underscore the different ways in which the Divine Liturgy and Roman tradition gained their grandeur. The Greek liturgy always had an extroverted element, to which the akathist hymns, public incensations, litanies, and processions give witness. The Roman tradition had litanies and processions in a far quieter way; the Roman emphasis was originally on the texts, almost always taken explicitly from Holy Writ or the saints' writings. The Greek liturgy gradually gained a more mystical element as the Palestinian monks of Constantinople imported their simple psalter and their hymnody, supplemented two centuries later by the hesychasts' antiphons. Rome moved from a communal (understood in the sense that the people of Rome were a community who often gathered in churches, not to be conflated with modern concepts of religious communitarianism) to a mystical setting with hardly any innovations to the texts. Elements unique to the city of Rome acquiesced to local variations when the Roman rite traveled throughout Europe and found eccentric, elaborate, divine expressions in the cathedrals of the Latin Church. The Greek liturgy retained the ritual and changed the text, the Roman liturgy kept the text and altered the ritual. 

In either case, I will not recycle that familiar "two lung" phrase of a previous Roman ordinary, but will instead leave the reflection that the Greek and Roman liturgies really should be seen as complimentary. The Roman rite presumes the presence of God, the Greek underscores it. The Roman rite basks in the truths of Christ, whereas the Greek rite explicitly states them three times a piece.

Pray for my friend, that she may see the light!

1 comment:

  1. In an odd twist of irony, it is the Roman Rite that emphasizes the mystical and the Greek that focuses on the comprehension of the the Mysteries. The self-referential nature of the Greek Rite is precisely why I believe it is meant to be celebrated in the vernacular. It would be nice to hear some of the more transcendent bits like the Seraphic Hymn in Old Slavonic, but that is a small matter indeed.

    Personally, I find that the West Syrian Rite (provided, as I detailed on my own blog, it is not reformed in the spirit of these times) is one of the most transcendent that exists. I do not need to know what the priest is saying at the Consecration to know what is happening. He can say it in Syriac or Malaylaam and I will still know.

    As for her reaction, that is an unfortunate side effect of the ethnic church stereotype. A church where a bunch of Slavs or Greeks are gathered will usually result in that initial reaction even if it is far more than just a cultural gathering place the Liturgy more than a binding agent (and I know it is in that particular chapel).

    Frankly, I never felt the real presence of Christ much at low mass. Even when on the altar serving, I did not have any sense that something spiritual or Divine was transpiring.